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Generator Preventive Maintenance Is Vital For Emergency Preparedness

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Chelsea Stanfield / KOSU
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Trent Watt, an employee of Wilson Electric, repairs a permanent generator owned by a local business in Stillwater, Okla.

Generators were in high demand when an ice storm wreaked havoc across the state, leaving more than 300,000 Oklahoma homes and businesses without power for days and weeks.

Having a backup power source, like a generator, is common for when the power grid fails, but without proper maintenance, those generators might not work when you need them the most.

So, before that generator starts to gather dust in the corner of the garage, here are some maintenance tips to make sure it’s read the next time you need it.

Having a generator handy can take some frustration out of a less-than-ideal situation and in some cases it can be the difference between life and death.

Randy Wilson, owner of Wilson Electric & Alarm Co. in Stillwater Okla., said generators are only useful in an emergency if they run. To get them to run when needed, they need to be regularly serviced.

“[Generators] are [comparable to] a small tractor engine or a small motorcycle engine and require some maintenance,” Wilson said. “The oil needs to be changed once a year, [along with] the oil filter, air filter and the spark plug - kind of like a car.”

He’s been doing this work for nearly 40 years and said the recent ice storm prompted many Oklahomans to buy a generator.

There are two types of generators commonly used when there is a loss of power, according to Wilson: small, portable generators and large, permanently installed generators.

Permanent Generators

“The more desirable generator is the permanently installed generator,” said Wilson. “It looks more like an air conditioning unit sitting in someone’s yard and just sits there, silently waiting for an outage.”

Wilson said permanently installed generators are more convenient and much safer than portable generators in many ways.

Once installed, permanently installed generators are designed to automatically come on once a week for about five minutes, to exercise the motor and test itself, but all of those starts and stops means the generator requires annual maintenance.

Wilson said a key feature of a permanent generator is an automatic transfer switch which senses when utility voltage is available. When power is lost, the generator disconnects your home from the grid and then begins to power your home, he added.

Permanent generators also reduce some of the risks associated with using a portable generator.

“An engine burning fuel emits dangerous fumes,” said Wilson. “They are a hazard.”

Every year, people suffer or die because of carbon monoxide poisoning from misplaced portable generators. For example, the majority of deaths caused by Hurricane Laura were from misuse of portable generators.

Getting a permanently installed generator can cost between $8,000 to $10,000, said Wilson. Some generator companies allow permanently installed generators to be purchased with a finance plan, he added.  

Portable Generators

Portable generators need attention, just like permanently installed generators, but they often go unattended in a garage between emergencies.

“[People] should start [a portable generator] once every three months and let it run for five minutes,” Wilson said. “ [When] things sit unused, things start sticking that are not meant to stick. Rubber gaskets may crack over time and it needs the oil within the machine incorporated throughout.”

After you’re finished using the generator, you should also drain all the gas from the machine by letting it naturally run out of gas or by following the manufacturer's instructions. Leaving gas in the generator can cause clogs in the carburetor creating problems when you start it in the future.

In addition, Consumer Reports recommends using ethanol-free gas in small engines including generators. The ethanol in E10 fuel absorbs water, which can create problems when trying to start the engine in the future. The fuel can also corrode the fuel lines.

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